From Coal to Rare Earth Elements: Using Fossil Fuels to Find New and Efficient Extraction Methods Meet Kaylen Ocampo

Kaylen Ocampo wasn’t initially interested in a STEM career path. In fact, she was a nursing student conducting a hospital internship when she came across her passion for engineering. Through interactions with patients that were current or former engineers, Ocampo realized that her true career goal was to help others, and that she wanted to accomplish this through engineering.

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During her time with the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) program, Kaylen Ocampo researched rare earth element extraction using coal grinding, and focused on methods to improve the grinding process’s efficiency and economic viability

This realization came from a personal place for Ocampo. She was adopted from the small Micronesian island of Pohnpei, and she realized the opportunity that she had been given to receive an education in the United States. Desiring to give back, and knowing that the island of her birth lacked critical infrastructure and resources, Ocampo focused on an engineering career path that would allow her to support efforts to develop accessible and sustainable solutions for impoverished nations around the globe.

While searching for energy research opportunities online, Ocampo learned about the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) and applied because she wanted to gain research experience prior to attending graduate school.  

The MLEF program provides students with fellowship opportunities to gain hands-on research experience with the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy. The program’s mission is to strengthen and increase the pipeline of diverse future science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) professionals.

“This program has allowed me to foster and develop independent research skills for myself. There’s nothing quite like being able to be part of a conversation amongst individuals who are at the forefront and cutting edge of their research field.”

Ocampo’s internship took place at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She participated in the Rare Earth Elements program under the direction of the Materials Engineering and Manufacturing group.

While there Ocampo, under the guidance of her mentor Elliot Roth, Ph.D., investigated the behavior of coal and coal byproducts in a grinding mill, and tried to determine how the particle size affects rare earth element (REE) extraction. One of her objectives was to improve the grinding performance by analyzing different grinding aids and evaluating the coal particle size in relation to the grinding time. The goal of this research was to improve the coal grinding process, which could lead to more efficient REE extraction.

Secondary goals of Ocampo’s research were to study the creation of added-value products from the grinding and REE extraction process and to investigate the feasibility of producing activated carbon. If activated carbons and other marketable byproducts can be made, it could lead to better economic incentives regarding REE extraction.

According to Ocampo, her research will help support the Office of Fossil Energy’s goal of creating solutions for sustainable management of the nation’s coal reserves. Additionally, her research could assist in securing a domestic source of REEs, as well as finding possible methods to economically incentivize minimizing the environmental impact of coal and other fossil fuels.

While participating with the MLEF program, Ocampo notes the invaluable skills that she gained, whether they be technical, academic, or interpersonal. She says that prior to her appointment, she was terribly unconfident in her abilities as a researcher, but that she overcame this with the help and guidance of her mentors, colleagues, and fellow interns.

“My favorite part of the program was the camaraderie between all of the interns at my host site. It was a real treat getting to know and bond with everyone.” Ocampo remarks.

She recommends the MLEF program to others, especially those that want to gain initial exposure to research.

“This program has allowed me to foster and develop independent research skills for myself. There’s nothing quite like being able to be part of a conversation amongst individuals who are at the forefront and cutting edge of their research field.”

After her time with the MLEF program, Ocampo plans to complete her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and continue towards a doctorate in mechanical engineering, with an emphasis in thermal-fluids.”

The MLEF Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.